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For women working toward careers in physics, letters of recommendation can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, these letters can have a substantial impact on career development. On the other hand, letters written for women often focus on how their behavioral characteristics are perceived by the writers and can serve as a barrier to career development.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic. Literature on the impact of the pandemic on women in science has demonstrated a clear difference on how women and men have been impacted. Female workers, scientists and students have had to make more career-oriented compromises because of the pandemic than their male counterparts. For example, more women put their careers on hold because of childcare and education issues caused by the pandemic. The pandemic has thus magnified barriers to entry for women in physics, and as such, makes the need for this study of paramount importance.

Laura Davenport, Ph.D., PMP, ORISE evaluation specialist for STEM workforce development, is leading a research project that will examine systemic barriers and acute pandemic-related obstacles to gender diversity in science.

“We anticipate outcomes will give credibility to the idea that diversity cannot be achieved by simply adding members of underrepresented groups to an established environment,” Davenport said. “It is important to assess the value assigned to female and male science behaviors across different fields of study, as well as the value these behaviors offer to science.”

She added that results of the study will likely suggest that to increase gender diversity in physics, the environment must accept and value diverse qualities introduced by underrepresented group members instead of training underrepresented students to assimilate in order to be successful.

Davenport and her team are working with researchers from the University of Memphis. Their work is funded through the ORAU-Directed Research and Development Program. ODRD is an investment program that provides a path for funding innovative research-based approaches or solutions that capitalize on the core capabilities of ORAU and the research interests of our member universities. This year, ODRD projects focus on public health, data science and analytics, and equity, inclusion and diversity studies.